In Mark Rowlands' polemical and problematic philosophical exploration of fame, he blames the moral malaise of the present on celebrity culture. Rowlands terms this degenerate version of celebrification "new variant fame", or vfame, a state in which "we are constitutionally incapable of distinguishing quality from bullshit". The metaphors that Rowlands uses throughout Fame repeat and solidify the notion that vfame is akin to disease or mental illness, and that Western culture has undergone a "severe dementia". Vfame is a symptom of a Western world cut adrift in a sea of obscene relativism, where Britney Spears can be considered to be "just as good as Beethoven". Rowlands contends that such comparisons are "truly facile". In fact, he considers that cultural relativism has led to a state in which ordinary people can no longer make critical sense of their lives, too busy are they with consuming empty celebrity signifiers and comparing the merits of, say, Hello! magazine and the E! Entertainment channel.
While Fame is written with wit and offers a thoughtful archaeology of the philosophical roots of this cultural breakdown, taking the reader from Plato and the Enlightenment to the works of Milan Kundera, it is also deeply, negatively singular and rather too light in its actual exploration of the multidimensional nature of fame and its dislocated trajectory. Fame is also poorly researched, ignoring the great body of writing that has examined the issues that are at the heart of the book.
Fame can be criticised on three levels. First, the book is light on illustration and analysis, and those that are there are briefly dealt with. For example, Britney Spears is made sense of solely in terms of her mediocre talent. According to Fame, she is an average singer and dancer and doesn't compose her own songs. Spears epitomises the collapse in good taste and foregrounds the fact that fame is no longer a product of talent. As Rowlands suggests, "quality - the quality of a talent or ability - is a function of rarity and labour". The sense that Spears might speak to identity crisis, or that her wayward behaviour might work to draw attention to the manufactured nature of celebrification, does not register as a possibility. The idea that her confessional mode of fame can be linked to Christianity and therapy culture is similarly overlooked, leaving the analysis of Spears partial and reductive. In fact, she is a complex cultural phenomenon who is more important than Beethoven.
Secondly, the idea of vfame, a really interesting conceit, is never linked to productive cultural engagements. According to Rowlands, vfame is just "bullshit" that stops ordinary people from seeing their lives as they are actually lived (in total boredom). Given that scholars such as Joke Hermes have identified the role that celebrity gossip plays in female solidarity, Rowlands' argument is again light on discursive alternatives.
Finally, Fame implies that there is a fixed and determinate relationship between vfame and audience/consumers, with an easily read cause-effect dynamic. There is no consideration given to the ideas of active agency, semiotic and phenomenological leak, counter-reading, appropriation and bricolage. Rowlands' argument that vfame trades in opiate-inspired mirages, on passive dupes too "high" to see the real through the relative, becomes quite a damning critique of the book's own limited gaze. Fame is always a contested terrain and a subject of pleasurable negotiations. But Fame's black-and-white trajectory leaves one with an unbearable lightness of having been introduced to vfame, but not provided with an exploration of its full significance.
By Mark Rowlands
Acumen 128pp, £9.99
Published 18 September 2008